Island planners want visitors now, big money later


By Skye H. McFarlane

The redevelopment of Governors Island may have taken a detour earlier this fall with the rejection of a set of master plan proposals, but island managers say that the abandoned Coast Guard facility is finally building momentum in its quest to become a premier New York City destination.

After pulling in record crowds last summer, the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation, a state-city public authority, is taking steps to build the island’s visitor base in the coming season while conducting a design contest to plan the facility’s future parkland.

To make the island more attractive to commercial developers down the road (officials hope that one day Governors Island will be financially self-sustaining), GIPEC is working to make the island more visible and accessible to New Yorkers. Although plans for next summer won’t be finalized until the spring, GIPEC president Leslie Koch said that the island will offer improved access through some combination of longer hours, more days or opening up a larger section of the land to visitors.

Last summer the island was open from June 2 to Labor Day, with open access from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, guided tours on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., and several festivals and specials events sprinkled throughout the summer.

The island attracted 26,000 visitors, a number that Koch called “a drop in the bucket” compared to other N.Y.C. sites, but a 300 percent increase for the island. Controlled by the military for most of its history, the space only became accessible to the public in 2003.

“We’re hoping for at least 30,000 visitors this summer,” Koch said. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed for good weather.”

In pursuit of that goal, GIPEC is installing a barge dock so that commercial water taxis can join the Governors Island ferry in bringing visitors to the island. A new trolleybus will be available so that guests with limited mobility can tour the island. GIPEC is considering adding a short bike route through the historic district this summer and the Downtown Boathouse plans to install a floating dock for kayakers in time for the 2007 season.

Made possible by grants from the Friends of Lower Manhattan ($25,000) and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (just over $50,000), the 20-by-40 foot dock and access ramp will also be able to accommodate canoes. The dock will be designed so that it could be relocated to accommodate future construction on the island. According to Boathouse founder Jim Wetteroth, who also supplied the design details, the dock would serve as a destination point for kayaking tours and groups. For security reasons, the boaters would have to clear their trips with GIPEC before arriving on the island. A GIPEC spokesperson said that the group couldn’t comment on the specifics of the kayak dock until it meets with Wetteroth to discuss the details.

As for the island’s less immediate future, Koch said that GIPEC is focusing on developing the island’s 85 acres of open space. On Nov. 13, the same day that GIPEC rejected all 25 responses to this summer’s request for proposals, the group announced that the island will be the future home of the Harbor School, a marine-themed public high school that currently resides in Bushwick. The school will be located in one of the historic district buildings and the Department of Education will be responsible for renovating the building and funding the school. Neither a specific location nor a timeframe for the school has been identified.

GIPEC also extended the deadline for applications to its two-step parkland design contest until Dec. 1. Representatives from 46 different developers and landscape architecture firms attended a pre-submission information session on Halloween, two weeks before the original deadline. In January, GIPEC will select five finalist firms, each of which will be asked to submit a design to the contest. By spring, the public should be able to view and comment on the designs. To encourage high-quality work, GIPEC will reward each of the five competitors with a $40,000 “honorarium.”

“We want to recognize how much effort it takes, and how much it costs, to come up with a truly innovative design,” Koch said.

Koch added that GIPEC will choose a design team based on the team’s plan as well as the team’s ability to interact with the community and respond to public concerns. Rules governing what can be developed on the island specify that there must be at least 40 acres of parkland in the final design, with no gambling or residential buildings allowed. In addition, GIPEC wants the park designer to create a two-mile boardwalk and bikeway to replace the current road that encircles the island. GIPEC’s other visions for the open space include barbeque grills (grilling is forbidden in most city parks), playgrounds, sculptures and an outdoor amphitheater.

In the much longer term, Koch hopes to bring a mix of hotel, retail, commercial and non-profit tenants to the island. GIPEC is still studying the possibility of an aerial gondola to transport visitors from Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. Renowned architect Santiago Calatrava unveiled gondola drawings with the mayor in February, but there has not been much talk about the project since.

“The only way the island comes back to life is if you use it,” Koch told Community Board 1 members on Nov. 27. “We need your help to make sure that it’s a priority and that we use the momentum we’ve gained in the past few months.”